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Board says union stalls on contract

After weeks of inactivity in bargaining, and after breaking in three different union negotiators, School Board representatives say the non-instructional employees' union is not interested in hammering out a new contract any time soon.

Consider that many employees probably are better off under the old contract than they might be under a new contract, because of the severity of budget cuts.

School Superintendent Walter Sickles has proposed that many employees lose holiday and vacation pay and be forced to take days off without pay. But until a new agreement is reached, those employees still get paid for those days.

"At this rate, I think it'll go into January or February" before a new contract is negotiated, said Robert Queirolo, director of employee relations and the board's chief negotiator. "In the meantime, the clock keeps ticking."

So, are union negotiators stalling at the bargaining table to avoid the burdens of the budget cuts?

Not so, according to the new chief negotiator for the Hillsborough School Employees Federation.

Don Kuehn, a national union representative recently brought in to handle bargaining for the local federation, said Wednesday he was aware that School Board representatives believed the union was stalling.

"If their position is that the union is trying to frustrate the bargaining process, I don't want to be a party to that," Kuehn said. "My job here is to get a contract. And I don't think it's going to take very long to get a contract."

It's unclear why Kuehn is optimistic about a resolution. To this point, negotiations have been slow and frustrating.

The district's financial situation is dismal. Most years, employees want to get a new contract because it means salary increases. This year, it is a virtual certainty that they will not get any more money, and many will lose ground by working and getting paid for fewer days.

Recently, the School Board elected to cut off negotiations and go to impasse after the employees' union brought in a new negotiator and the process went back to square one. The union objected to the declaration of impasse and accused the board of subverting the process by cutting off bargaining prematurely.

But the board recently agreed to go back to the table, after the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint.

Hillsborough is not the only district frustrated at the bargaining table. In Martin and Sarasota counties, the school boards and unions have gone to court. In both cases, the school boards decided not to give employees "step increases," raises employees get for gaining a year of experience and moving up a step on the salary ladder.

The unions argued that the board could not withhold those "automatic" increases without bargaining, even if there is not enough money to pay for it.

In both cases, the Public Employee Relations Commission agreed with the unions, and the boards appealed the cases to their district courts of appeal.

In Hillsborough County, the union negotiator denied that he was stalling and made an argument school officials have made. He said he is convinced that the budget problems are real and that cuts must be made.

"If they have to cut this deep now, with seven months to go in the school year, how deep would the cuts have to be if they try to get it all done with just two months to go in the school year?" Kuehn said. "I think it's to our advantage to get a contract."

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